38. I am a beginner (relative beginner) and I want to learn an advanced piece. Can you help me?

The short answer is – no, not really. There are no ‘magic shortcuts’ to mastering the complex art of piano playing – and it’s impossible to squeeze many years‘ worth of knowledge and skills into several months. If you try to, you risk forming bad habits, developing hand injuries and stagnating your progress.

If you want to learn WHY, and you have an extra 5 minutes – please keep reading:

 

Almost every day, I am contacted by beginners (or relative beginners with only 1-3 years of piano experience) who wish to learn their favorite advanced pieces right now (instead of choosing the progressive path, and moving through the beginner and intermediate repertoire in a step-by-step manner).

While I do understand your passion, and your drive to play beautiful music :), my duty as a teacher is to tell you how piano playing really works – instead of simply telling you what you wish to hear :P.

I call this hurry of mastering very difficult things in a very short period of time the ‘disease of our century‘, or the ‘fast-food mentality‘ – and in this article I will explain WHY this approach is so harmful, and how it actually wastes your time and energy (instead of saving you time).

Imagine that you’re going to a martial arts instructor and telling him: “Sensei, I am a white-belt (or a complete beginner), but I want to fight a black-belt tomorrow/next month. Can you help me”? What do you think the sensei will tell you? Yes, he will say that reaching the black-belt level takes time and A LOT of training, and that this complex process cannot be ‘compressed’ and conquered overnight, no matter how much you would love to! He will also tell you that he can only train you correctly, in a step-by-step manner, and that he cannot help you achieve unrealistic goals (just like he cannot help you fly to the moon without a shuttle!). He will also explain that fighting a black-belt can be very dangerous for you at this moment, and lead to injury!

The same thing happens in musical performance: NO TEACHER, no matter how good/experienced he/she is, can help a beginner play an advanced piece WELL, as it should be played – expressively and with technical freedom! Yes, it’s always possible (at any level) to simply learn the notes of an advanced piece and play them slowly, clumsily, in a tensed manner (which can lead to injuries), without any expressive effects (such as a beautiful sound, dynamics, phrasing, voicing, intonation etc.) – but WHY would you choose to play a beautiful piece in such a terrible manner?

Another metaphor. Let’s say you wish to learn how to juggle – and from your very first attempt, you try to juggle 10 balls at a time. What do you think will happen? Yes, you will drop all of them! On the other hand, if you are patient and learn how to throw and catch one ball first; then juggle 2 balls; then 3, then 4 etc.; after a period of time you will masterfully juggle all 10 balls!

Piano playing is an incredibly complex art. Achieving a very good level takes at least 8-10 years of serious, very consistent practice (under the guidance of a professional teacher). This is how our art really works – and your unrealistic expectations cannot change the natural speed at which our mind and muscles learn new things (just like they cannot change the natural rhythms of the universe, or the rotation of seasons, or the length of the year!).

Quite contrary – practicing very difficult pieces too soon (after only 1-4 years of practice) will make you lose a lot of time and effort: instead of moving forward in a progressive manner, gradually and harmoniously building ALL your expressive/technical/aural/analytical/reading skills (which is the only way of making REAL progress) – you will always stagnate at the same ‘clumsy relative-beginner’ level.

You will probably ask me: why does this happen, and why can’t I make progress while practicing pieces that are too difficult for me?

Let me explain with the help of another metaphor: your brain can be compared to the RAM of a computer. When you only begin studying a musical instrument, the RAM is not very powerful – let’s say only 500 MB. It can only comprise and multitask so much – and if you try to learn a difficult piece, the entire RAM will be spent on coordinating only the notes – there will simply be no RAM left for analyzing/understanding the meaning of the piece, for correct technique, expressive effects etc.

But if you start with a less difficult piece (appropriate for your level):

  • part of your RAM will take care of notes/rhythm/fingering;
  • another part will be focused on developing your hearing, imagination and musical understanding, developing an ergonomic technique, a correct key attack (with the resulting beautiful sound), learning how to create (correctly, in a serious ‘scientific’ manner) a wide palette of expressive effects (such as different articulations, a wide range of dynamics and sound colors, good voicing and sound balance, phrasing, intonation, good sense of tempo/rhythm etc.);
  • yet another part will learn how to practice correctly and efficiently;
  • and there will still be some free RAM left that will allow you to coordinate all these things without putting your brain into over-drive!

Also, the RAM will keep growing as you practice – and one day it will allow you to play advanced pieces properly, without using your entire mental capacity for the notes only!

But if you always force, over-drive and ‘short-circuit’ your RAM with enormous tasks that it cannot handle – it will never grow!

Also, learning the notes of a piece does not equal playing a piece well!!! Learning the notes/rhythm/fingering is only the first tiny step of a very complex and fascinating journey – but if you play an advanced piece too soon, this is the only thing you will be able to do, this way missing out on the most important aspects of our art, and creating LOTS of bad habits!

Playing the notes of a piece (clumsily, without expressive effects) can be compared to admiring a beautiful landscape blindly, with your eyes closed! Again, WHY would you choose to do this, why would you willingly push away the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of our art, instead of being patient and learning all the fundamentals correctly, forming strong expressive/technical habits and making true progress?

If you always play pieces that are too difficult (instead of choosing the step-by-step approach), 10 years from now you will still be where you are right now – or, in a best case scenario, you will reach an approximate early-intermediate level, and you will still not be able to play advanced pieces really well. On the other hand, if you choose the progressive path – 10 years from now you will be an advanced player, with brilliant expressive/technical/analytical skills: you will be able to play almost ANY piece of the universal repertoire – in a beautiful, expressive manner, without any technical limitations! No matter which path you choose, the time will pass anyway – so why not spend it wisely?

Therefore, the tortoise will arrive much quicker than the hare (not to mention the inevitable hand injuries and bad playing habits that the hare will collect ‘along the way’).

So, if you wish to play Nocturnes/Etudes/Ballads by Chopin, Etudes by Liszt, Preludes/Etudes by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven’s late Sonatas, Bach’s Preludes & Fugues, Scriabin’s Preludes/Etudes, Debussy’s Preludes/Etudes (and this list of advanced pieces can go on and on) – please don’t try to learn them after only several months (or 1-4 years) of practice. Be patient instead, form solid skills by practicing easier pieces first (suitable for the beginner and intermediate levels) – and then, after about 6-8 years of serious practice, you will be able to play advanced pieces as they should be played!

Conclusion: Many music lovers nowadays think that playing an instrument is a ‘recreational’ activity that can be fully mastered during the ‘weekend’ LOL – and they do not understand (yet) that achieving a serious level (that would allow them to play advanced pieces) takes at least 6-8 years of consistent practice. The results of this ‘rushed’ approach are quite tragic:

  • tension and hand injuries (as a result of insufficient technical development and also because the student is not familiar with relaxation, whole-arm action, weighted playing, wrist flexibility/navigation etc.);
  • ‘note-only’ playing, with total lack of expressiveness (due to lack of understanding/knowledge, and also because the student didn’t learn any expressive techniques in a correct step-by-step manner);
  • harshness or shallowness of sound;
  • mechanical playing;
  • frustration and lack of progress (the students cannot go beyond the early intermediate level because they keep playing advanced pieces incorrectly; their entire attention is focused on struggling with the very difficult text – and this leaves no ‘mental space’ for expression; and the more they rush, the slower their progress is! The lack of progress leads to frustration and ultimately many students give up on piano playing altogether).

The solution is to move from one level to the next one in a gradual manner, through correct and progressive practice of the beginner and intermediate repertoire, allowing yourself enough time to fully understand and master each practiced piece (and each encountered expressive effect or technical pattern). The step-by-step approach is the ONLY one that allows a student to make real progress and actually reach the advanced level.

If there would be shortcuts that would allow a beginner to play advanced repertoire – trust me, professionals would’ve found it many centuries ago :P, and we would have Richters and Horowitz’es at every corner LOL.

So if you truly love music and wish to become a good pianist – offer yourself the gift of patience, and learn our art in a gradual and progressive manner! This approach is much more enjoyable than you currently think: you will have lots of fun in the process, you will discover many charming pieces for beginners/intermediates, you will form skills you never even knew existed :P – and you will make true lasting progress!

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
~Lao Tzu

For an even more complete picture of how piano playing really works, I recommend reading my answers to FAQs No. 22 and 34. Also, if you’re a beginner and you wish to join PCA, I recommend starting with our step-by-step Video Course for Beginners (and not with Bach’s Goldberg Variations! LOL). You will find a detailed description of this Course in FAQ No. 17. ;)